Avoiding Internet regret: How to keep your kids safe online
Written by Tracy Romoser
There’s a social revolution going on — do you know where your kids are?
Years ago, you might have yelled from your front porch for your kids to come home. Now, if they’re like most of today’s tweens and teens, they have several online profiles traversing a complex social media maze that may seem incomprehensible and all but impossible to track. But track it you must.
If that’s not what you want to hear, then you can stop reading this article, go yank out the cables in your home, throw out the computer, return all your cell phones and consider moving to a deserted island.
The need to feel constantly connected has increased dramatically in our culture, and kids satisfy this need by accessing online resources and gadgets through multiple profiles, which are essentially virtual copies of themselves. Think what would happen if you called your child’s name and all the versions came home. The Twitter kid would show up texting an update. The warrior avatar would walk through the door to play a game with his “party” on Xbox Live. The Facebook and Formspring kid would walk past you to the family computer to “do some homework.” And your applications kid would be sitting on the porch where the reception is best to download another novelty to her smartphone.
So, do you know where your kids are? By the time this article is published, nearly 500 million people worldwide will be connected to Facebook, by far the world’s most popular social-media hub. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.
Before you get too freaked out, you do have some tools in your parenting chest to make the social-media journey safer for your children. We’re all in the same boat when it comes to navigating the social-media maze, and it’s clear there is no consensus on the “right” way to do it. A January 2010 survey of 2,000 U.S. households by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that there’s a huge variation of social-media policies in U.S. families — from the stringent to the slack, and everything in between.
What to do right now
Where should you start in creating your own family policy? Perhaps by viewing your kids’ travels on the Web in the same way you would a weekend night out with friends. Insist that you know where your kids are and with whom. Just because this online world is not physically present doesn’t mean it can’t present very real dangers.
Implement and clearly communicate some basic house rules to teach your kids digital responsibility. Many experts recommend an “open door” family social-media policy, especially with younger kids. By requiring your child to share his account passwords and regularly hand over the cell phone, you can do spot checks of texts and posts.
Sarah, an Everett 12-year-old, says her mom has frequent and open access to her Facebook account. “Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, because I don’t like her snooping through my stuff and social life,” she says. “I have to tell her who I ‘friend.’ And if my friends are saying bad stuff, she’ll tell me I have to delete them.”
Sarah’s mom, Denise, keeps close tabs on those “friends of friends,” too. “Some of my friends ‘like’ 100 different pages — it’s crazy!” Sarah says. One of those friends is Sarah’s 16-year-old cousin, who has more than 600 friends. That’s a lot of ways Sarah’s posts can be broadcast — without her even knowing it.
Sarah is aware of the dangers and resigned to her mom’s involvement in her virtual life. “I kind of like it and don’t like it,” Sarah says. “None of my friends’ moms do all that. But it feels kind of good, because I know my mom is looking out for me — and if something is bothering me, she’ll know.”
“My mom has talked to me about ‘once it’s out there, it’s out there,’” Sarah says, and experts do advise that you talk to your kids about this reality. Explain that anything they post online can live on forever and can come back to embarrass them — or even harm their chances of landing a job or gaining college admission — later in life.
One easy rule your entire family can follow: Never open, download or post anything online that you wouldn’t share with your grandmother. If that sounds unrealistic — or naïve — try this one: Don’t post, tweet, share or download anything that you would be embarrassed to have read aloud at a family gathering. This advice is not foolproof, but it sets a guideline that is easy to remember in a language your child can relate to.
Make sure you’re setting a good example. “Parents can help their kids by modeling appropriate behavior,” says Cora Breuner, associate professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s, who also works with children who have developed dependencies on social media. “We need to monitor the kids and self-monitor with patience, rules, grace and forgiveness.
“One thing I tell parents is to stop kicking the kids off the computer so you can get on. In that sense, we’re all learning to control our social-media use.”
Set limits on your child’s access to social-media networks and cell phones. A clear policy about when — and how much — they will use these tools will help develop greater self-control and prevent arguments about how much time a person has spent online.
And on the topic of cell phones: Cell phones and texting are ubiquitous among tweens and teens. It’s not uncommon for a kid to keep their phone by their side every waking hour and even through the night. Add hours of lost sleep to midnight phone use and you’ve got a walking disaster for a kid. Tell your kid they can’t sleep with their phones or computers on. Period.
Monitoring social-media activities is a good place to start to keep a child safely within a secure online universe — kind of like the online version of walking downstairs to “do some laundry” when your kids and their friends are in the basement. But parents also need to take steps to help protect their child’s online privacy.
Facebook privacy settings and policies seem to change with the weather; check your child’s (and your own!) privacy settings regularly. You will find these settings on any Facebook page, under the right-hand “account” tab, or you can check them via the website ReclaimPrivacy.org or a similar independent scanning tool.
While looking in on your child’s social-media accounts, check to see if any of your child’s friends reveal too much information or present inappropriate content, then flag this as an example of why higher privacy levels are important.
Take special care with photos. If your kids are Facebook users, have them modify their privacy settings to hide “photos and videos I’m tagged in” from anyone they don’t recognize. You should do the same thing. In a 2010 Consumer Reports National Research Center survey, 26 percent of adult Facebook users indicated they had posted their children’s photos and names on their personal site. That might seem harmless, but consider: As your “friends” widen their online circles, your children’s information goes out to an ever-increasing pool of complete and utter strangers.
Keeping up with the fast-moving social-media climate takes time and effort — and can seem daunting. But more and more tools are popping up that can help parents stay on top of their child’s safety. One website — SafetyWeb.com — gives parents the ability to check up on their kids’ online activities and privacy settings, even when kids access their social network sites on someone else’s computer. The subscription-based service regularly scans multiple social-media sites for a child’s email address, then notifies parents of their child’s online activities.
To ‘friend’ or not to ‘friend’?
It’s worth noting that more and more parents address security concerns by “friending” their children on Facebook, but you should think twice about that option. If you and your child become friends or follow Twitter accounts, not only will you see what your kid and his friends are doing, he’ll also see what you and your friends are up to. Generally that’s fine, until someone tweets embarrassing high school stories (or posts them on your wall). The Web believes in long-lost friends and forgotten embarrassing moments, and can regurgitate everything and anything floating around in cyberspace.
Another worry is that by “friending” your child, you’re intersecting the circle of your friends with your child’s circle of friends. If someone with less-secure privacy settings in either of those groups starts tagging your child in photos, your child’s security will be compromised; a search could bring up the tagged photo and any text associated with that image. Unfortunately the same can be said about the network of friends your child makes through one-to-one relationships. This can grow exponentially to include their friends, their friends’ friends and the myriad ancillary connections that span way beyond your neighborhood, state and country.
“My daughter’s Facebook world is no place for me, and she doesn’t belong in my Facebook world,” says Chris Williams, the father (but not Facebook “friend”) of a 14-year-old girl. “I have the password and regularly drop in to her page unannounced and have a look around. We also keep an eye on who her ‘friends’ are.” Williams says this has had the added benefit of providing fodder for really good family discussions — offline.
Websites to avoid or be skeptical of (and these are just a few)
Formspring is a nasty website through which comments can be sent anonymously to mailboxes, and then posted at the owner’s discretion. Teenage girls in particular are drawn to Formspring and may come out of the experience with hurt feelings; insults and gossip are rampant on the site. Talk to your kids if they are accessing this site and ask them what they find interesting about the content. You should take a look at the Honesty Box app on Facebook, too. Honesty Box is similar to Formspring, and too often the posts and comments are all about causing hurt, bad feelings and animosity. Steer clear.
Skype is the newfangled, old-fashioned way to connect. This application allows a user to talk face to face to with anyone who’s also on Skype. It’s an older application with varied technical wonkiness and jagged video quality. It’s great for connecting with distant family or friends, even for off-site study groups. However, unless your children know who they’re talking to, have them stay away from this site.
Chatroulette is similar to Skype, launched a couple of years ago by a Russian teenager who enjoyed using it to talk to his friends. The big difference here? Your kids don’t get to choose who they talk to on Chatroulette. Once they sign on, they’ll be matched up with someone they may not know, and who may just happen to be naked. But that only happens one in 10 times, according to a survey carried out by RJMetrics, a large online business research firm. It gives new meaning to the term ‘Russian roulette’!
Foursquare is an up-and-comer that marries social networking and location with badges and rewards. Users can call out their location to their friends much like a game by checking into a site using either their Twitter or Facebook account. They then try to gain points to eventually become the “mayor” of somewhere. It sounds like fun — especially if your child has ever geocached or had visions of ruling his or her own fiefdom — but it allows an ever-widening net of total strangers to know exactly where your kid is.
Craigslist is a veritable landmine of safety pitfalls, but increasingly it’s used by kids to sell old hardware, video games and other marketplace items. If your child must sell something, get involved with the posting and any transactions. Under absolutely no circumstances should you allow them to meet someone without you being present. Better yet, take the wares to a secondhand thrift store.
Tracy Romoser is a Seattle writer who is not only related to, but is also friends (and “friends”!) with, her husband and two teenage kids.
After you and the kids talk about how to stay safe online, you likely will have trouble getting them to abide by the new rules. Developing good habits takes practice, and you can expect them to complain and hit a few roadblocks as they cope with new limits on their social-media time. There are an increasing number of teens and adults who struggle with social-media addiction. For those individuals, it’s important for their friends and family to recognize the signs indicating they need help.
Dr. Cora Breuner shares this list of signs associated with social-media addiction in children:
- They think they are online for less time than they actually are.
- They lie about the time they’ve spent online.
- They feel guilty about the time they spend online.
- Their habits affect their physical health (e.g., poor sleep; headaches; shoulder, neck and back pain).
- Their schoolwork is adversely affected.
- They get angry when they’re told to stop using their phones, game consoles or computer.
- They feel bad when they’re not online and feel better when on (similar to drug addiction).
- They forget what they are doing after being online too long.
- They need to quickly surf multiple times per day. (Parents should check the computer or cell phone browser history.)
- They sleep with their phones or computers on in their bedrooms.
It’s like walking a tightrope when keeping your kids safe online and minimizing any hurt feelings that might arise if your child feels that he is being controlled. The best solution is to adopt a policy of transparency and avoid the prying-parents-and-secretive-kids loop, which could escalate ill feelings between both parties. The key is to show your children you care about their safety because you care about them.
HOW SOCIAL-MEDIA SAVVY ARE YOU?
Savvy kids have ways of keeping things hidden. They might visit their accounts using friends’ computers or cell phones. They may even “un-friend” prying parents or simply block folks from photos on their sites. Even then, the word gets out when it goes viral. Here are four stories of “you’re busted” social-media moments. Which ones are true?
- An unsanctioned high school party at a school is promoted via text messages and Facebook posts. During the night, a school bus is vandalized, the athletic field is trashed, and the exterior of the building is tagged (covered with graffiti). The next Monday, students are brought into the school office one by one and asked to “’fess up” or they may not attend their graduation. One of the students is the class president, who had posted details of the party on his Facebook page.
- “Text From Last Night” (TFLN) is a website that features outrageous texts that people grab and share (you guessed it) from posts uploaded the prior night. The only identifiable characteristic of a TFLN post is the area code number whence it originates. When a girl shares a text that says she has “only been in town three days and already I’ve been kicked out of four bars,” the girl is grounded. Her mom is one of her Facebook friends.
- Earlier this year, 28 middle school students were suspended from their school after the administration got wind that the kids had been posting vicious Facebook remarks on another student’s wall.
- A middle school boy shares his MySpace password with his friends. Not only do his friends revise the unsuspecting boy’s personal information and change his password (effectively locking him out of his account), they upload raunchy photos and pose as the boy while sending spurious messages to his circle of friends.
If you guessed that this was a trick question and that all of these incidents actually happened, you’re right!
Tips for social networking from Common Sense Media, including downloadable tools like “Family Media Agreements” and checklists for discussion
SafetyWeb’s computer safety tips for parents